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How has the pandemic affected students' decisions to enroll in medical school in Florida?

Kamice Klein sits at her computer desk in her East Orlando bedroom preparing for the first day of school.
Kamice Klein sits at her computer desk in her East Orlando bedroom preparing for the first day of school.

A shortage of doctors and nurses across the country has been amplified by the pandemic. Doctors-in-training were thrown in the trenches as a way to help fill the gap at the height of the pandemic. Now, we’re almost halfway through the 2021 fall semester. How has this past year and a half influenced students’ decisions to enter the medical field?

Kamice Klein sat in her bedroom in east Orlando around 12:30 p.m. on a Monday as she prepared for her first day of nursing school. She wore her blue Seminole State College Nursing scrubs but she did not actually leave her room. As we’ve adapted throughout this pandemic, the class is via Zoom. She said she was a bit nervous about being overwhelmed and about the workload. 

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Klein uses an iPad to attend her nursing classes via Zoom. (photo by: Talia Blake/WMFE News)[/caption]

Before enrolling in school, Klein worked as a flight attendant for 5 years, but said she’s always thought about becoming a nurse. Both her mom and one of her roommates are nurses. Klein said the COVID-19 pandemic and watching her roommate serve the community while she was forced to stay home was the push she needed to apply for nursing school. 

"Every three days she'd go to work at the hospital, 12 hour shifts, and nothing ever changed for her and kind of made me feel useless sitting at home while she was out on the frontlines," said Klein.

Some people have decided to leave the medical profession for good due to the pandemic. But that’s not the case when it comes to the high numbers of people looking to start new careers in medicine.

The University of Central Florida, Florida State University and the University of South Florida’s Health Morsani College of Medicine saw their applicant pools increase by around 1,000 people for the 2021 academic year. 

Jeff LaRochelle is Dean of Academic Affairs and a medical professor at the University of Central Florida. 

“You have a pandemic like this, and it sparks people to be like, 'You know, what I really want to care for people. And maybe this is an outlet for me to do that. I have, you know, the skill set and the ability to be a physician and I have that desire in my heart.' And that sort of just awakens people to jump into that,” said LaRochelle.

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Jeff LaRochelle is Dean of Academic Affairs and a medical professor at the University of Central Florida. (photo by: Talia Blake)[/caption]

Throughout this pandemic, nurses and doctors have been stretched thin by not only the long hours treating severely sick COVID-19 patients, but also by contracting the disease themselves and being forced to step out of the workforce, at least temporarily. 

Near the beginning of the pandemic, LaRochelle ran a COVID ward team at the Queens Hospital Center. "My ward team really consisted of two interns (and) two residents," LaRochelle said. "It was amazing to watch these young trainees, two or three years into residency - they probably signed off on more death notices in the two weeks that I was there than I probably signed off on in 10 years as a practicing physician."

Still, the reality of the pandemic isn’t scaring away people like new nursing student Kamice Klein. She says she’s excited to one day be able to fill a need and help sick people in the community. But she’s also aware it won’t be easy. “What I'm not looking forward to is realizing the fact that I can't save everybody, and not everybody can be saved," she said. "But as a nurse, that's what you do. You comfort people when they can't be saved, and you save people when you can.”

While the latest COVID-19 surge caused by the Delta variant is slowing, more than 56,000 people have died from the illness in Florida.

After a brief stint as Morning Edition Producer at The Public’s Radio in Rhode Island, Talia Blake returned to Central Florida Public Media. She is a graduate of the University of Central Florida with degrees in both Broadcast Journalism and Psychology. While at UCF, she was an intern for Central Florida’s public affairs show, Intersection. She joined on as Morning Edition Host in 2019. In 2022, Ms. Blake was appointed to the Florida Association of Broadcast Journalist’s board of directors.